The anticipation surrounding a big Scrabble tournament is almost palpable. Meeting old friends from all over the United States and Canada, catching up on the latest news, reliving highlights of tournaments of days gone by.
“Where do I know you from?”
“Have we played each other before?”
“I know! Reno back in 2007. Right?”
And there is something else. Before the first day action starts, anything seems possible. Your scorecard is blank, a tabula rasa. There is still the possibility of going undefeated. You’re not yet chasing a spread that has fallen off a cliff into triple digit negative numbers. Everyone is still a winner. Maybe this will be the year when you show ‘em how it’s done. It could happen, right? Perhaps you will draw all the blanks and the esses, bingo with a QU word, find the elusive triple-triple. And surely you will remember all those word lists you studied and your brain will be firing on all cylinders, making anagram magic, rack after rack after rack.
Meanwhile, you banish from your mind all thoughts of racks full of vowels, struggles with unplayable vees, phony bingos being challenged off the board. All that was history from another time and another place. But not here. No, here you’re a veritable tile whisperer who will make the board sparkle and your opponents gasp.
Everyone crowds around the pairings posted in the lobby, scanning down the list to find opponent names, table numbers, ratings.
The morning announcements are made, the rattle of tile bags being shaken resounds through the hall, and the first game is underway.
This tournament consists of 88 competitors split into three divisions by rating. I am at the very top of the bottom division, seeded third of 26. That means everyone is going to want a piece of me, to supplant my position. All but two of my opponents will be lower rated than myself, meaning that any loss will drag my rating down into the dumper.
We played three games in the morning and four in the afternoon.
Game 1: My opponent struggles along and fails to bingo at all. I bingo twice, first with the natural YIELDER for 108 points and then, with the aid of a blank, ASTERIA for 85. YIELDER was the only bingo I could find on my rack and it almost didn’t make it onto the board for want of a hook. Just in time, my opponent played ALL, allowing me to hook the Y for ALLY and to bingo on the double-double. I wasn’t totally sure that YIELDERS is an acceptable word, but I checked later and it’s fine. As for ASTERIA, it’s a “list word.” One of the first word lists that most serious players study is SATIRE (and it’s wonderful when a word on this list shows up in your rack). I knew that SATIRE + A is ARISTAE, ASTERIA, ATRESIA. I hooked the S to DAK at the bottom of the board for a triple. Again, I wasn’t sure whether DAK takes an S, but it does. My only lame-brained move of the game was challenging my opponent’s play of AJI and losing a turn. Win: 425-320.
Game 2: After a fine start in the first game, I sat across the board from an opponent whom I have played several times before. I never forget his name, as it is the same as my Dad’s. We played a very tight, relatively low-scoring game. Again, my opponent was unable to get off a bingo, with his highest scoring word being worth 42 points. I laid down just one bingo, ENTASIA, for 63 pt. This is another very basic list word (TISANE + A), so I was surprised when my opponent challenged it. What may have turned the game in my favor was my play of PURFLE on the triple for 33 pt about three-quarters of the way through the game. Still, my opponent kept slogging away and I nearly lost. When he played out the last three tiles on his rack, he collected an extra ten points from my remaining tiles, leaving me ahead by a mere seven points. Win: 345-338.
Game 3: My opponent went first, laying down JAM. I was able to hook an S and bingo with REMIXES, with the X on a triple letter score, for 97 points. That was my sole bingo of the game. My opponent came up with PAUSING for 70 points, which was her sole bingo (she adroitly hooked the G off her own play of AGO for AGOG). I drew the Q and a U out of the bag together, and was able to play QUOTED on the double word for 38 pt. I surely had the better draw with the Q, X and Z, making it tough on my opponent. Win: 383-313.
At lunch, I was undefeated and I headed up to my hotel room for a nap during the hour and 45 minute hiatus. I should have known that trouble was coming in the afternoon.
Refreshed, on my way out the door, I assembled a quick sandwich to munch on in between games.
Game 4: My first game of the afternoon was against an opponent whom I had not seen in many years. Renowned for her closed board style, I resolved to open the board at every opportunity. I got lucky and completely drew the bag, bingoing with REQUEST for 93 pt (which nearly didn’t make it onto the board, as I found the E-hook to AGE for AGEE at the very last minute) and TENDING for 71 points with the aid of a blank. My opponent used her blank for her one and only bingo, RETIRED for 65 pt. I had my highest spread of the day at 179 pt. Win: 441-262.
Now at 4-0 for the day, I should have known that pride cometh before a fall.
Game 5: I drew two Us in my initial rack, which I immediately dumped courtesy of ULU, inadvertently setting my opponent up for a series of high-scoring plays. She bingoed first with CLEATED for 68 pt, then with the clever vowel dump LAITIES for 75 points. My opponent drew the J and the X, leaving me with the Q and the Z, and us with a blank apiece. I used mine with an S for a non-bingo Hail Mary play near the end of the game. It fell flat (SIZED for 58 pt), handing me my first loss of the tournament. Loss: 374-426.
Once you lose the Big Mo, it can be hard to bounce back. I suspect that psychology tells you that you’ll just lose again, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Game 6: This was a hard-fought game, with my opponent and me each laying down two bingos. Mine were RANDIEST for 70 pt and BEANIER (using a blank) for 86 pt. Hers were SKATING for 77 pt (using a blank) and, all the way at the end of the game, VETOING for 83 pt. The latter she played on the triple word score, hooking an I to FUND. I had completely forgotten about the word FUNDI! Even placing the X on a triple letter score in both directions for 52 points couldn’t help me out of this one. My opponent simply played better than I did, and her win was well deserved. Loss: 389-415.
Everyone is tired by the time we get to the last game of the day. Fortunately, I’d had a nap at lunchtime.
Game 7: My opponent and I each had a single bingo apiece, he early on with VARIOUS (using a blank) fir 70 pt and me with the low-scoring natural STRAINED for 60 pt at the end of the game. My opponent drew the J, X and Z, while I had the Q. He performed well, with two 40-point plays. I somehow eked out a small 15-point win, which seems unlikely in hindsight. Win: 351-336.
I finished the first day of competition at 5-2, with my standing having dropped to sixth place.
When I returned to our hotel room, my wife was napping. I joined her, and we proceeded to sleep right through the evening reception before waking for a late dinner at Denny’s across the street.
Tomorrow, I will be facing opponents with ratings closer to my own, setting me up for a tough day of competition.